In hindsight, it’s easy to see how key figures at pivotal moments in history have opportunities to enact major social change: St. Fabiola, the Nicene bishops, or Basil of Caesarea for hospitals; for slavery, figures like William Wilberforce, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. But most of us don’t find ourselves in that kind of position, and that’s ok. Remember how Jesus constantly surprised people by acting on the Father’s guidance? Follow His example and act where you are.
That’s what St. Paul did. St. Paul wasn’t in a pivotal position to abolish slavery either, but that didn’t stop him from doing something surprising when God dropped an opportunity in his lap. A runaway slave named Onesimus came into Paul’s circle, having fled from a Christian master named Philemon – a man Paul knew. As a runaway, Onesimus could have been executed. Paul wasn’t in a position to take down the institution of slavery, but by doing what he could, he planted the seeds of its demise. In one short letter that has haunted slaveholders for centuries, Paul forced Philemon to resolve his former slave’s precarious legal position, freed Onesimus, and did it all at his own expense.
“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus…I am sending him back….Perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but better than a slave—a beloved brother….If you consider me a partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge it to me….I will pay it back.” (The whole letter is only a few hundred words long – click through and read it; it’s worth your time.)
The question is never about what you can’t do. The question is what you can do, right where you are. Perhaps you can’t change healthcare, but you can change the bandage on a homeless man’s hand. You can’t change the past, but you can provide a firm hug and a soft landing for someone who’s trying to put their life back together. Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted, free the oppressed, heal the sick – follow Him by doing what’s nearest and clearest, what’s within your reach right now. (In an age of social media slacktivism, I feel compelled to add: You can’t “stand with” anybody while sitting on your ass. Go actually do the thing.) Merry Christmas!